Author Archives: ambidexteri

Review of Frank Herbert’s Dune

Sorry our long absence and dearth in reviews–Rachel and I have been busy with various and sundry things, grad school and theater productions among them.

I’ve been meaning to read this science fiction masterpiece for quite some time, so after the craziness of the semester and qualifying exams was over, I finally picked up a copy.

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One of the most immediately powerful elements of the novel was its highly developed world. Rife with idiosyncrasies and offhand remarks about religious and political elements of this futuristic universe, one immediately gets a sense of the political tension between powerful fiefdoms and the intrigue deep-seated in the highly organized and gendered religious institutions. Just a few pages into the novel, and I felt fully immersed in this technologically advanced but tremendously medieval society divided by diplomatic tension and violent subterfuge.

What made this “realistic” world compelling was the way it provided intricate contexts for suspense, foreshadowing, and thematic development. I often found myself impatient to learn the meaning of certain societal quirks, the outcomes of life-threatening espionage, and the evolution of the main character (Paul) as he grows from a lost, confused adolescent to a religious and political leader. The life and society of the Fremen was perhaps the most intriguing in its development as their worldviews and religious practices are quintessential to Paul’s maturation.

The underlying themes present in the Fremen culture provide a deeper meaning to Dune as Herbert fills it with terminology from fundamental aspects of Islam. Throughout the entire novel, Paul struggles with visions of leading some horrific genocide across human civilization, which he refers to as a jihad–a concept many Muslims associate with an internal, spiritual conflict. The whole of the Fremen is referred to as the ummah, a word in Islam which refers to a global religious community identity that transcends kinship and any other manner of allegiance. There are many other references to concepts from Islam within the Fremen society, making it a rich world full of spirituality and history. Herbert’s drawing from the wealth of Islam (in addition to the feudal elements of the Landsraad and the Empire) provides an enormous degree of depth that would otherwise be inaccessible and moves the world away from the ethnocentrism so often a part of Western literature.

Beyond these well-developed allusions to religion and history, Herbert has a beautiful command of language. With simple language, he develops concise but vivid imagery that constructs a visual architecture for every location in the novel. From the caverns of the Fremen sietches to the Baron Harkonnen’s decadent halls on the planet Geidi Prime, I was always immersed in a stunning visual setting. One great example, from the trek Paul and his mother, Jessica, make across the desert after escaping the Harkonnen army:

The sun dipped lower. Shadows stretched across the salt pan. Lines of wild color spread over the sunset horizon. Color streamed into a toe of darkness testing the sand. Coal-colored shadows spread, and the thick collapse of the night blotted the desert.

One of the most palpable elements of setting, and indeed theme in general, was the absence of water. The majority of the novel takes place on a planet, Arrakis, that is one giant desert where there is no precipitation and there are no oases or bodies of water. From the dryness of the air to the ritual sacredness of crying for the dead to the socioeconomic disparity between the peasants and the nobility (who can afford a garden), water is the exacter, the diviner, the sentencer. It has the first and final say in everything, from economy to ritual to dress. Aside: the efforts of corporate conservation and subsequent selling of water is reminiscent of the water merchants of the ancient city of Petra in the Jordanian desert, yet another indication of the Arabic culture pervading Arrakis.

Treasury at Petra


Economy drives all the major political and institutional decisions throughout the novel. Arrakis is the sole source of fuel for interstellar space travel, its massive worms somehow linked to a substance called the spice melange, giving spaceship pilots the ability to fold space in a sort of tesseract. Even the reclusive Fremen play into the spice market to manipulate the hand of certain political groups.

It is this role of economy that allows Herbert to incorporate a great deal of political commentary, such as his advocating for limited government. At several points, Herbert seems to advocate for a government more like the Ottoman millet system rather than an overarching federal or imperial state controlling the finer details.

Overall, Dune is a rich, compelling read brimming with intrigue and immense depth. Rich with detail and meaning, I felt immersed even after finishing the book. While Herbert offers a great deal of food for thought, Dune is also an enjoyable novel that provides action, suspense, and realistic characters that make for fabulous pleasure reading.

Some quotes that serve as thematic “thread” to tie together different parts of the novel:
“He who can destroy a thing has the real control of it.”
“Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.”
“There should be a word for memories that deny themselves.”

Review of Anna and the French Kiss

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In 2010, the YA community was buzzing about Stephanie Perkins’ debut novel Anna and the French Kiss. It was raved about by so many people that I knew I had to read it, but only now have I gotten around to it.

In the book, the title character is sent to spend her senior year of high school at the School of America in Paris. Anna doesn’t speak a word of French and is furious with her Nicolas Sparks- esque author father for being so obsessed with appearances that he would deprive her of spending her final year of high school away from her best friend, Bridgette, and her little brother, Seany. She realizes that she’s being forced to do something most eighteen year-olds would die for, but she’s still pissed.
But things are looking up not long after Anna arrives. Her hallmate Meredith becomes a fast friend, and through her, Anna is introduced to some great people. One of these people is Etienne St. Clair, an American who was born in Paris and raised in London. His English accent only adds to his attractiveness and Anna develops an instant crush. But St. Clair (as everyone calls him) has a girlfriend of a year, and Anna tries to squelch her feelings, especially since Meredith is obviously in love with him, too. But of course, she can’t, and the usual teenage mishaps happen- awkward encounters, drunken confessions, and misunderstandings that threaten to tear the entire friend group apart.

Anna wasn’t my favorite YA book I’ve ever read. Perkins’ style is very enjoyable to read, but the plot of the book is underdeveloped in some places and forced in others. For the most part, Anna is a likeable character, but for some reason, Perkins sometimes downgraded her usually-witty character to an airhead: upon finding out that the motto attached to her family crest is French, she comments, “How was I supposed to know a Scottish motto would be in French? […] I always assumed it was in Latin or some other dead language.” For a girl who is obsessed with all films, including foreign ones, these sorts of moments made no sense.

Anna and St. Clair’s friendship is pretty cute and fun throughout the book, and Perkins does a great job of describing the awkward tension between two people that are attracted to one another but can’t do anything about it. One of my favorite scenes was after St. Clair’s domineering father forces St. Clair to stay in Paris over Thanksgiving instead of spending it with his sick mother in California. He’s so upset that, after venting about it to Anna in her room, he asks if he can stay there overnight. The awkward sexual tension is well-done: they both stay fully dressed, but there’s not enough room in Anna’s bed to avoid their legs or arms touching and they both try their hardest to act like they’re totally fine with the arrangement. But then, several chapters later, when St. Clair hears their friends having sex, Anna freaks out mentally, thinking how humiliating this moment is because the fact that she’s a virgin has always been this “wall” between her and St. Clair… but it hadn’t been before, and after that moment, continued not to be.

Similar incongruities spring up elsewhere in the book. St. Clair mentions how controlling and emotionally abusive his father is several times throughout the book, but when Anna sees St. Clair and his father interacting on the street, she thinks “Whoa, this is why St. Clair never talks about his dad- he’s controlling and emotionally abusive.” If Perkins had meant for the street interaction to be jarring and sad, she failed to create the proper build-up.

There were things I enjoyed about the book, though. Anna’s voice and Perkins’ style in general reminded me of Maureen Johnson’s, whom I love, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that they have the same agent (as it happens, a flaw of the practically-perfect Johnson’s is her knack for creating romantic relationships that fall short in some infinitesimal but important way.) The book is a fun read with good characters, but Anna doesn’t have enough weight for me to return to it anytime soon.

Review of You Should Have Known (spoilers!)

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I bought the audiobook of  Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel You Should Have Known on a whim. The last time I did that, the chosen book sucked, but this one sounded promising. From the back:

Grace Reinhart Sachs is living the only life she ever wanted for herself. Devoted to her husband, a pediatric oncologist at a major cancer hospital, their young son Henry, and the patients she sees in her therapy practice, her days are full of familiar things: She lives in the very New York apartment in which she was raised, and sends Henry to the school she herself once attended. Dismayed by the ways in which women delude themselves, Grace is also the author of a book You Should Have Known, in which she cautions women to really hear what men are trying to tell them. But weeks before the book is published a chasm opens in her own life: A violent death, a missing husband, and, in the place of a man Grace thought she knew, only an ongoing chain of terrible revelations. Left behind in the wake of a spreading and very public disaster, and horrified by the ways in which she has failed to heed her own advice, Grace must dismantle one life and create another for her child and herself.

I simply loved this book. It was one of those books that you get addicted to. I can’t remember the last time I just laid in the bed and listened to a book, and I even listened to it while doing a workout video because I couldn’t bear to wait 25 minutes to find out what happened next.

Grace is a wonderful character. She’s caring but straightforward, confident but utterly human in her insecurities, smart and inwardly cutting when she’s stressed. ‘Likeable’ is the wrong word to describe Korelitz’s character, though I did like her. I guess she’s just… perfectly human. The perfect example is her psychology book, which bears the same title as the novel: Grace cares very much for the down-on-their-luck women/patients who prompted her to write the book, but they frustrate her. Why can’t they see that the men in their lives informed them long ago of their own deficiencies? Your husband’s “experimental phase” with men was not experimental; he told you he couldn’t handle money on your first date; you should have realized that when his gaze lingered on other women when you were engaged, that it wasn’t going to be stopped by a ring. You just should have known.

The book, which isn’t even published yet, gets huge attention. She appears in Vogue, the New York Times, and her agent secures her a spot on The View. But the book is just one part of her life. Grace spends considerable time helping out with her son’s school, also her alma mater. It’s at a meeting about the latest fundraiser that she meets the to-be murder victim. Their contact is extremely brief, but it’s enough to get Grace grilled by the police once the woman is killed. 

The thing I loved most about the book is how internal it is. Grace’s mind is so active, and the murder puts her into a complete tailspin, especially when combined with the worry over her husband Jonathan’s whereabouts and handling the way to explain all of this to her adolescent son. Her memories, combined with her knowledge of the human mind, makes her inner journey engaging and exciting. Korelitz’s timing with Grace’s memories are great, with only one exception: for some reason, to explain how Grace came to own a lakeside house in Connecticut, Korelitz takes us all the way back  to the early fifties so we can see her grandparents’ life together. All we really need to know is that Grace’s grandmother is her namesake and that she left Grace the house, but Korelitz regales us with the life of a 1950s housewife, which might be interesting except THERE’S A MURDER BEING SOLVED 50 YEARS AHEAD. 

Speaking of the murder, the solving of it is also perfectly timed. Many readers complain that it’s obvious that Jonathan committed the murder- and it is. That’s because its clarity isn’t the point; it’s the fact that.Jonathan is a psychopath that is also a doctor who is married to a shrink Sure, as soon as I read that Jonathan made sure he couldn’t be contacted, I figured out that he was probably the perpetrator, but the thing that gave me actual chills was learning why and how he could possibly be that kind of person. I cannot get over how interesting and smart it is that a psychologist who wrote a book on pinpointing flaws early on ends up marrying a legitimate psychopath… and not realizing it for 17 years. It’s not because she lacks smarts as a human being or a therapist; it’s because she has exactly the same hang-ups as her target audience. As she figures out the truth about Jonathan and her life with him, she is forced to do some serious, painful soul-searching. 

The novel is possibly a bit too long at the end; I don’t really need a whole chapter on how Henry is convinced by a Connecticut musician, at least for a night, to set aside his classical violin to pick up a fiddle. But I’m willing to forgive Korelitz’s overwriting because the book as a whole is amazing. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. GET THIS BOOK NOW.

 

Review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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I’ve been hearing about Stephen Chbosky’s book The Perks of Being a Wallflower for years. It was always on my to-read list, but I never got to it. When the recent movie adaptation was released, I couldn’t see it until I followed my rule of reading the book first, and then Stuart got me Perks for Christmas.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is told from the perspective of fifteen year-old high school freshman Charlie. In a series of letters to an unknown person, Charlie describes his first year of high school as it goes on: losing a close friend, struggling with school, being taken under a teacher’s wing, making new friends, and exposure to the party scene of those new friends. He also describes his family- his parents and two older siblings- with whom he is very close, and how watching his siblings grow up influences the way he himself grows. Watching is what Charlie does best, and his letters reveal an astonishing level of personal and social analysis that is both inspiring and heartbreaking.

The book surprised me right away. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t for the book to be in letter form and for it to open with the main character, Charlie, grieving his friend’s suicide. Chbosky isn’t afraid to shove reality in your face, and I respect his not shying away from it from the beginning. He also doesn’t understate Charlie’s naivete. Both Charlie’s reactions and his written voice reveal it almost uncomfortably and we’re able to watch Charlie grow in both areas as the book goes on.

Cbosky doesn’t stops shocking with those elements, though. Throughout the book, we are left clues about Charlie’s past stay in a hospital when he was very young. It could have been a stay for pneumonia, for all we know in the beginning, but as the letters keep coming, it’s revealed that Charlie’s doctor at the hospital was a psychiatrist, who he started seeing after his beloved Aunt Helen dies tragically. His struggles were bad enough that he missed almost a year of school, and throughout the book, Charlie constantly references his fond memories of when Helen would babysit him and his siblings on Saturdays when his parents went out and how Helen was the one who made him feel most loved in the world. But as Charlie falls in love with his friend Sam and explores his sexuality with both her and his gay friend Patrick, it’s obvious that something is amiss. Chbosky saves the bomb until almost the end of the book, when Charlie is again under a psychiatrist’s watch, and it’s one of those reveals that makes you take a literal step away from the book.

You’ve probably already Perks. Read it again. Charlie’s story merits another look.

Choice Quotes:

I think about it sometimes. I wonder went on in Michael’s house around dinner and TV shows.Michael never left a note or at least his parents didn’t anyone see it. Maybe it was “problems at home.” I wish I knew. It might make me miss him more clearly.

I would really like to ask Sam on a date someday. I really would. She is so nice […] It would be very nice to have a friend again. I would like that even more than a date.

I didn’t know that other people thought things about me. I didn’t know they looked.

I always wanted to be on a sports team like that. I’m not exactly sure why, but I always thought it would be fun to have “glory days.” Then I would have stories to tell my children and my golf buddies. I guess I could tell people about Punk Rocky and walking home from school and things like that. Maybe these are my glory days, and I’m not even realizing it because they don’t involve a ball.

And I thought that all those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn’t.

I just wish God or my parents or Sam or my sister or someone would just tell me what’s wrong with me. Just tell me how to be different in a way that makes sense […] I know that things get worse before they get better because that’s what my psychiatrist says, but this is a worse that feels too big.

Review of Things Fall Apart

At sixteen, I read Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, a novel about the rise and fall of dictatorships in modern Africa. It was compelling, insightful, beautiful, and dense. This foray into non-Western literature was for me a glimpse of an alien world, one so foreign from the tradition of American and British writing in its senses of place, detail, character. I could go on, but suffice it to say that Achebe offered to me such powerful words that depicted the chaos of a continent rent asunder by totalitarian regimes and Western imperialism.

When I heard earlier this year the Achebe had passed away, I felt compelled to revisit his work before it came time to do the end-of-the-year post for Ambidexteri. I wanted to do something to commemorate his accomplishments while demonstrating an appreciation for one of his greatest novels: Things Fall Apart.

As Achebe first introduced the main character of Okonkwo, I felt instantly immersed in a way somewhat reminiscent of The Good Earth–the world was genuine, the language simple and sincere. The novel follows Okonkwo from the life of his slothful father to the growth of his own children. Achebe builds Okonkwo from several angles, and this makes him a compelling character, if not relate-able.  The impact his father’s poor nurturing has on his values and identity evokes a strong sense of empathy for him as he starts his underprivileged life. Okonkwo’s determination and accomplishments despite the setbacks of his unfortunate upbringing and consistent run of bad luck make him admirable. His tenderness and compassion contrast with his strictness and temper, making him a conflicted but very human persona. While I would not say I always like Okonkwo or his behavior, he consistently remains the protagonist. This certainly speaks to Achebe’s aptitude as he creates not a heroic but rather an exceptionally real character.

What made the whole of this piece so compelling was not Okonkwo, however. Umuofia, the village in which Okonkwo and his family live, is Achebe’s medium for depicting Africa before and after Western religious, political, and cultural imperialism. Like Okonkwo, the village is not perfect–there are conflicts between members of the clan and with other clans. Achebe uses Okonkwo and his experiences to highlight various elements of Nigerian ethnic identity, such as anamism and the role that this faith plays in personal life, which in turn emphasizes the importance of family. Indeed, all aspects of their culture are interconnected like strands of a spider’s web: sever one strand, and the whole falls apart. Achebe’s beautiful depiction of this highly-evolved society becomes stark as missionaries, and later political administrations, begin to wear at its fabric.

What I found most intriguing in the end, with Okonkwo’s ultimate response to the white man’s new place in Umuofia, is the way in which Okonkwo and his life reflect almost as microcosm the life of Nigerian society. The grief and pain he suffers at the hand of the District Commissioner is symbolic of the early throes of death his village begins to show in its complacency and fatigue. Achebe’s final depiction of Western imperialism is done not through Okonkwo or the disintegrating clan, but rather through the head of the white man’s political administration: The District Commissioner. This overseer himself fancies writing about the life of Okonkwo in “[p]erhaps not a whole chapter but a reasonable paragraph, at any rate,” ending with an alternative title to Achebe’s novel: “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribe of the Lower Niger“. Particularly heart-rending is this suggestion that the end of a culture and civilization should be considered modernization, or even an act of kindness.

Compelling and insightful, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is brilliant, eloquent, and riveting. His simple language, complex characters, and detailed world make for a moving read about the dramatic changes experienced in Nigeria during the European conquest.

Some favorite quotations:
“A man could not rise beyond the destiny of his chi. The saying of the elders was not true–that if a man said yea his chi also affirmed. Here was a man whose chi said nay despite his own affirmation.”
“Your mother is there to protect you… And that is why we say that mother is supreme. Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead.”
“We do not pray to have more money but to have more kinsmen. We are better than animals because we have kinsmen.”
“The white man is very clever…. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
“He mourned for the clan, which he saw breaking up and falling apart…”

Review of Hyperbole and a Half

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Allie Brosh’s hysterical blog, Hyperbole and a Half, has been one of my favorites for years. Her stories, comprised of carefully combined words and pictures, would bring me to tears, I would laugh so hard. Her book, subtitled Unfortunate Situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened, is no disappointment. While reading the book on a plane, I had to try my hardest not to disturb my seatmate.

Brosh’s book includes some classic stories from her blog, such as The Simple Dog (starring her probably mentally challenged canine), The God of Cake, and The Party (wherein little Allie begs her mother to let Allie attend a party while heavily sedated), and adds in a handful of never-before-read stories, which are just as side-achingly funny.

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Then there are the more sobering stories. After regaling her large audience with funny tales for a few years, Brosh fell suddenly silent . There were no more new blog entries and this book, set to be published in September of 2012, didn’t appear on shelves that month. Everyone wondered where she went, and a few months later, she reappeared with a post entitled, Depression, Part 1, about her continued struggles with mental illness. While Brosh relayed her story with her usual comedic skill, there was a lot of startling, sobering, unfunny parts of this story. It was possible that Brosh’s audience would have shied away from this sudden change, but what happened instead was a reinforcement of dedicated fans’ support, and the gaining of a lot of new readers. Brosh’s book includes a continuation of the depression story, which explains that while she’s better. she’s still not cured, and probably never will be. Telling a different kind of story was a risk for Brosh, and one well worth taking. 

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I think the best part about Hyperbole and a Half is that it feels fresh when you’re reading it. Her new stories are devoured and her “old” stories are looked forward to eagerly. The book reads quickly and is a study on the (mostly) fantastic absurdity of life. I think I speak for all of Brosh’s fans when I say, Keep on keeping on, Allie. 

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Choice Quotes:

(It’s hard to capture Brosh’s greatest quotes, since many of them are in picture form. I’ll try, but buy her book, too.)

“Hey! What are you doing?”
“Playing a game.”
“What game?”
“‘What’s Wrong With Me?’ It’s like an Easter egg hunt for things that make me feel weird.”

…For a little while, I actually feel grown-up and responsible.I strut around with my head held high, looking the other responsible people in the eye with that knowing glance that says, I understand. I’m responsible now, too. Just look at my groceries.  

I kept eating out of a combination of spite and stubbornness. No one could tell me not to eat and entire cake- not my mom, not Santa, not God- no one.

Review of Dark Places

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Gillian Flynn has recently come to the attention of many readers due to the popularity of her latest book, Gone Girl. It’s so popular, in fact, that it’s impossible to get ahold of in most libraries. Because of this, I decided to read another book of hers while I waited: Dark Places. After all, it sounded like exactly the kind of book I enjoy: creepy, thrilling, and smart. It did not disappoint. 

Dark Places is about thirty-one year old Libby Day, who, twenty-five years ago was the sole survivor of the Kinnakee Satan Sacrifices, when her then-fifteen year old brother Ben snapped one night and massacred her mother and her two older sisters. Since then, Libby has been trapped in a depression of sorts. She’s unable to function normally- writing a check exhausts her, she can’t control her anger, and instead of working, she simply lives off of the fund to which people have contributed since her family was murdered. The problem is that in the past few years, Libby’s story has grown stale to the public and people rarely donate to her cause anymore; her money is running out. But then Libby gets an offer from a group called the Kill Club, a group of people for whom Libby’s story is not old news. In fact, they’re sure that facts were overlooked and will pay Libby thousands of dollars to make appearances, give interviews, and sell her family’s possessions. Libby is so desperate to keep up her miserable but comfortably solitary life that she’s willing to do all this, until it becomes apparent that what she thought were facts when she was seven, might not be at all.

I admire writers who aren’t afraid to write unlikable characters. Flynn took the risk of her readers hating Libby when she wrote her main character. LIbby is so angry and so troubled that she’s hard to empathize with. However, as a reader, I was able to accept her for who she is; she does, after all, have every right to be that way. She also doesn’t apologize for her character, and for some reason, that made me like Libby more. And even though the stubborness doesn’t go away, it support Libby’s slow change of heart regarding the murders: Libby may be money-grubbing and cynical, but it’s those traits, among others, that propel her to find the real answers. 

The book is mostly written from in Libby’s voice, but every few chapters, a third person narrative gives us the perspective of either Ben (Libby’s brother), Runner (their father), or Patty (their mother.) This gave the reader some relief from Libby’s heavy voice and allowed us to piece together the story ourselves, instead of Flynn presenting the answer in the final chapter in a cliche “crazy killer speech” moment. The best part of getting the additional points of view was seeing a small thing that was already or would shortly be a remarkable fact, whether it be a family story that was insignificant to one character but meant the world to another or an object present in the scene. Flynn leaves these little gems around casually, but does it artfully, so that when the reader comes across it, it’s like a bomb going off. 

I hadn’t read a thriller novel in awhile, and reading Dark Places made me miss doing so. Flynn has a great style- it’s entertaining and unapologetic, and chock-full of skill. If Gone Girl is anything like Dark Places, that long wait is completely worth it.

Choice quotes:

“Like I said, [Kill Club] is basically for solvers. And enthusiasts. Of famous murders. Everyone from like, Fanny Adams to-“
“Who is Fanny Adams?” I snapped, realizing I was about to get jealous. I was supposed to be the special one here.
“She was an eight-year-old, got chopped to bits in England in 1867. That guy we just passed, with the top hat and stuff, he was playing at being her murderer, Frederick Baker.”
“That’s really sick.” So she’d been dead forever. That was good. No competition.

I steal underpants, rings, CDs, books, shoes iPods, watches […] The actual stuff my family owned, those boxes under my stairs, I can’t quite bear to look at. I like other people’s things better. They come with other people’s history.

After another forty minutes of driving, the strip clubs started showing up: dismal, crouched blocks of cement, most without any real name, just neon signs shouting Live Girls! Live Girls! Which I guess is a better selling point than Dead Girls. 

Review of Revelation Space

I am not often one for contemporary science fiction–I typically read more “classic” work by authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke. But a good friend of mine recently recommended Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space to me with full knowledge of my literary disposition, so I thought it might stand a chance to impress me.

Before diving into the novel, I wanted to do some research on Reynolds since I was unfamiliar with him or his work. Turns out Revelation Space was his first book, published ca. 2000. Being the science fiction snob that I am, I was a bit dismayed–far too contemporary for my taste. But I also learned about his background prior to becoming an author: PhD in Astrophysics at St. Andrew’s in Scotland. This level of expertise might indicate a great capacity to understand and construct a physically accurate universe. Thus I entered Revelation Space with mixed feelings: high hopes for a physically-compelling universe but unconvinced about command of literary devices.

Revelation Space

The plot itself takes quite some time to develop. Reynolds spends a good deal of time establishing the exposition, building the societies and worlds in which the action takes place. While intricate and ornate with detail, pure universe construction can seem at times a bit mundane. Especially when following an archaeological dig in a desert. Imagine Indiana Jones with three additional plot lines and without Nazis or booby traps–this is essentially the first third of the novel.

That being said, the universe is exceptionally well-put-together. Every element is convincing, from societal normatives to time dilation. The feel is organic, gritty, with an intricate mix of high-tech and sociopolitical chaos. And the physics is astounding yet approachable and well-written, such as this description of the outer reaches of a star system:

The protective caul of the star’s magnetic field did not extend this far out, and the objects here were buffeted by the ceaseless squall of the galactic magnetosphere; the great wind in which the magnetic fields of all stars were embedded, like tiny eddies within a vaster cyclone.

Not only does this attest to Reynolds’ ability to distill complex scientific ideas like the electrodynamics of our galaxy, but it likewise demonstrates his command of prosaic language to produce vivid images of the chaos of space. He does not limit himself to scientific material, however, as he uses humor and references from his universe to depict action. One of my favorite instances is after a massive ship collides with a planet:

It looked like a biology lesson for gods, or a snapshot of the kind of pornography which might be enjoyed by sentient planets.

Once the plot itself began to take off, this sort of language served convey the innumerable plot twists and characters’ dynamism with wit and depth. Reynolds’ diction and scientific imagery made for compelling suspense that felt real without being especially technical (although the excerpt at the end of this post is an amusing yet educational exception to this rule). I was incapable of putting down the book once I hit the halfway point as the mini climaxes and character developments happened in brilliant succession.

What I found most enjoyable was Reynolds’ use of certain characters’ malleability toward their own moral compulsions to bring about a wholly unexpected conclusion, one which contained a powerful message about the ethics of scientific discovery–and indeed any discipline devoted to exploration. As our society grows increasingly dependent on technology and begins to reach for the stars, it should consider the moral dilemmas that Reynolds points out. Additionally, Reynolds explores the evolution of socioeconomic class systems during humanity’s move to other star systems, which provides intriguing insight into our current society.

While Revelation Space does have a rather slow start, sticking with the novel through the first hundred pages or so leads to an exciting plot with some rather interesting speculations about the future state of humanity and the nature of what we consider to be “alien” sentient life. Reynolds does provide an intriguing universe for the framework of this novel, one to which he returns in future novels such as Chasm City. If you are willing to be patient with the beginning, this is a delightful read.

A note regarding Alistair Reynolds:
As I was researching Reynolds’ background, I ran across the author’s website, which included a personal bio, a number of FAQs, and, oddly enough, an e-mail address. Feeling daring and adventurous, I sent him an e-mail asking about his work in astrophysics and the relationship that had with his writing. He was quick to respond with a personal message regarding his research, delighted to hear from an avid reader and writer who was also pursuing graduate work in astrophysics. He offered some advice on being a writer and a graduate student, which was nice and somewhat generous considering he probably hears from quite a few fans and aspiring writers on a regular basis. Through our discussion, we discovered that I work in the same field he did: X-ray binaries.

Neutrinos are fundamental particles; spin-half leptons. They come in three forms, or flavours: electron, mu- or tau-neutrinos, depending on the nuclear reactions which have birthed them. But because they have mass–because they move fractionally slower than the speed of light–neutrinos oscillate between flavours as they fly. By the time the ship’s sensors intercepted these neutrinos, they were a blend of the three possible flavour states, difficult to untangle. But as the distance to the neutron star decreased–and with it the time available for the neutrinos to oscillate away from their creation state–the blend of flavours became increasingly dominated by one type of neutrino. The energy spectrum became easier to read, too, and the time-dependent variations in the source strength were now much simpler to follow and interpret.

Review of There but for the

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In London, 2011, a guest at a dinner party excuses himself, goes upstairs, and locks himself in the guest bedroom of his hosts’ house. For months, he stays there, forcing his hosts to slide deli meat under the door on pieces of paper and worry that their unwanted boarder will never leave. As the crowds gather outside the house, hoping for a glimpse of the man through the window, the Lee family does the best they can to keep themselves and the situation under control. The man, Miles, seems to be known by no one, really; he has no family, his emergency contact Anna claims she hasn’t spoken to him in thirty years, and the friend who brought him to the party in the first place had only just met him a few weeks before. Everyone wants to know who Miles is and why he’s locked himself in the room, but Miles doesn’t seem in any hurry to supply anyone with answers.

Ali Smith is known for her strange, beautiful writing style, and There but for the is no exception. Each section of the book (headed respectively by one of the words in the title) is written not only from a different character’s point of view, but also in a different style. The first section is a story about a young boy and his father in a basement folding paper airplanes. The story seems unremarkable until the end of the novel, when it connects the characters in a perfect circle; it is, in fact a story written by Miles in the room, inspired by a prompt given to him by ten year-old Brooke. The second installment features Anna Hardie, a middle-aged woman who has just quit her job for all the right reasons, which would be fine except the right reasons don’t pay the bills.  Then, in the middle of her financial stress, she gets an e-mail from the Lees about their situation. Though Anna argues that she and Miles haven’t seen each other since they went on a student trip together in the ’80s. Anna’s story switches between the present and the past and she slowly remembers that there’s more to her and Miles’ story than she thought. Part three is from the point of view of the guest who brought Miles to the dinner, Mark. Mark is haunted by the voice of his dead mother in his head, and she only speaks in obscenity-laced rhyme. We get to see what happened at the dinner the two men attended, and suddenly Miles’ decision to leave makes a lot more sense. An Alzheimer’s sufferer, May Young, stumbles through section four, describing in bits and pieces her marriage, her young daughter’s death and the boy who helps her get through it every year, and the workup to her escape from the retirement home where she’s been placed. Then finally, ten year-old Brooke takes over the book in full force. With her stunning vocabulary (thanks to her natural intellect and professor parents) and insatiable curiosity, Brooke is the only one who manages to connect with Miles at all, and ends up changing his life in the process.

Smith’s novel clearly illustrates the complexities of human lives and relationships. Each featured character is somehow connected to another and the connection influences the decisions the other characters make. Smith’s skillful reveal of these bonds is fantastic and I loved being surprised as I was let in on the secret.  I also enjoyed the change-up in styles; May’s story is disjointed because of her Alzheimer’s, and Brooke skips from subject to subject like the kid that she is. Mark’s telling of the dinner party shows us how everyone behaves from time to time- obsessed with proving how cultured and wonderful they are to a crowd of their peers. Each story shows a different side to human nature, some that aren’t fun to look at.

Britain seems to be more welcoming to different writing styles than America. I suppose “style” is the wrong word; almost every writer in the world has a different style. But in America, the format of almost every book is the same. In Britain, authors seem more free to change it up. For example, Smith’s novel doesn’t have a single quotation mark in it, though there’s plenty of dialogue. And even without it, her writing never confuses the reader. She tells the story with flair and weight, and it’s altogether wonderful.

Choice Quotes:

He’d said did she know he could sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words?
Go on then, she’d said.
I was there. There I was, he said.
It was a commonplace, he said. By the middle of the twentieth century, every important reporter put it like this: I was there. Nowadays: There I was.
Soon it would be seven words, Anna said. The new century had already added a seventh word. There I was, guys.

She had not known she was this shy.
She had not expected, out in the world, to find herself quite so much the wrong sort of person.

Google is so strange. It promises everything, but everything isn’t there.

Well, but it was sore enough, that wrist on the bed, to be her own wrist, no stranger’s wrist after all, there where the plastic bit into it. That’s how you knew it was you and nobody else, then, was it, when things were sore?

But the fact is, how do you know anything is true? Duh, obviously, records and so on, but how o you know that the records are true? Things are not just true because the internet says they are.

Review of Mary Poppins

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Most children in the first world saw Mary Poppins during their childhood. I was one of these kids, but to be honest, I don’t remember much of it. From what I remember of the title character, Mary Poppins was a magical, mysterious nanny who seemed strict upon introduction, but soon softens and speaks nonsense words while skipping through animated flowers.

P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins is a bit different. She’s still a magical, mysterious nanny, but there is no singing from this Mary Poppins- in fact, there is rarely a smile. Travers’ Poppins is a real person, which is to say, she is very flawed. She is vain, constantly admiring her reflection in windows, and is rather cold toward her charges throughout the novel. She’s even stern toward people she loves, like Bert the street artist and her uncle, and when caught doing a good deed, she brushes away compliments with “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The Banks children, despite their nanny’s coldness (or perhaps because of it), are fascinated by her. After all, she can have conversations with dogs, disappear into sidewalk drawings, and has an uncle who floats in midair when he laughs on his birthday. She’s not one to offer them a cuddle, but they are drawn to her nonetheless. The infant Banks twins too, love Mary Poppins because she understands what they’re saying where other adults think the babies are just gurgling.

Travers’ book is fantastical and charming, full of grand talking animals and a magical version of London where dogs have deep friendships and constellations appear on Earth in human form to do their Christmas shopping. It also discusses the tragedy of growing up from the points of view of both the child and the child’s elders, and parents’ stress about raising children well.

The reason I read this book was because of the upcoming  movie, Saving Mr. Banks, which is about Travers’ response to the making of the Mary Poppins film. In the trailer, it is revealed that one of the reasons why Travers is so upset by Disney’s approach to the story is that he is missing the point: the nanny doesn’t come to rescue the children or the family… she’s there to, as the upcoming movie’s title suggests, save Mr. Banks. I approached the novel excited to see the complexities of that in the novel, but wasn’t able to find  even an inkling of that. Mr. Banks is barely in the story, and when he is, he has very little contact with Mary Poppins. This is obviously not a criticism of the novel- Travers’ book stands on its own as a great piece of writing for children, and she can’t be held accountable for themes that are tagged on by others- but I am disappointed that the thing that most drew me to the upcoming film has very little root in the original source. But that shouldn’t dissuade people from reading the novel, especially if they’re a fan of Roald Dahl, whose style Travers’ is very like.